The (permanent) crisis
The notion of a crisis and leadership often go hand-in-hand; we’re led to believe that true leaders rise to the fore in times of crisis; they show their heroic leadership skills as they navigate their organisations through an exceptional period of turmoil.
But the title of this blog post is borrowed from an article by Ron Heifetz, Alexander Grashow and Marty Linsky, which proposes that we are living through such rapidly changing times that periods of turmoil are in fact no longer exceptional, they’re the rule. Organisations no longer attempt to get through a crisis in the hope that one day things will return to normal; the new normal is ongoing disruption.
It’s against this background that Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky wrote 'Leadership Without Easy Answers' and proposed the idea of adaptive leadership. They argue that challenges can often be divided into two categories:
- Technical [or first order] challenges—problems that can be pretty clearly defined and can be addressed with known solutions or ones that can be developed by a few technical experts. No big impact on people here. An example might include moving to a new kind of computer, or teaching a different topic.
- Adaptive [or second-order] challenges—these require significant (and often painful) shifts in people’s habits, status, roles, identities, ways of thinking, etc. The impact on individuals is often significant, personal and emotional. An example might include moving to project-based learning, or a dispositional curriculum.
Heifetz et. al. argue that the role of a modern leader is to develop an organisation’s ability to cope with adaptive challenges, because these are increasingly the ones that organisations are facing, and they are also the ones that are most threatening to an organisation’s success and survival. Adaptive challenges are also the ones that individuals struggle to deal with most often because they require us to abandon long-held approaches or practices, but also because they often require us to re-examine long-held values and beliefs.
Building adaptive capacity
Adaptive capacity is an organisation’s ability to cope with adaptive challenges; to define problems and solve them in the midst of pressure and disequilibrium. Heifetz lists a set of five features shared by organisations with high adaptive capacity:
- Elephants in the room are named: ‘undiscussables’ are minimised so all members of an organisation are empowered to critique mindsets and practices; confront areas of complacency; and ask the questions that need to be asked. Sometimes people who identify elephants in the room are labelled squeaky wheels or ‘trouble makers’, but sometimes they are simply the ones brave enough to identify an area about which the organisation is not being honest or open to learning.
- Responsibility for the organisation is shared: people look beyond their own immediate areas of responsibility to lend a hand or support others to advance the greater good.
- Independent judgement is expected: decisions made by people are the ones that only they can make; all others are delegated to other people or team members to grow their decision-making capacity.
- Leadership capacity is developed: everyone is considered a leader in some capacity, and this pipeline of leadership talent is always nurtured. This helps to grow the overall leadership capacity of the organisation at all levels.
- Reflection and continuous learning are institutionalised: difficult reflective questions are asked; smart risk-taking is rewarded, and experimentation and prototyping is honoured.
The daily work of leadership is to cultivate your organisation’s ability to cope with difficult challenges and disruptive times. It’s the kind of capability that is difficult to grow quickly, so when you need it, you’ll be glad you paid attention to it when you had the time.
- How does your organisation protect ‘troublemakers’ so that people feel it’s okay to name elephants in the room? How are people enabled to raise ‘undiscussables’?
- How might resistance to change be seen as ‘a resource’? How can people’s apprehensions or concerns about change be used to find potential problems, and solutions to these problems?
- What are some decisions that you currently make that could be distributed to others? How can you grow their independent judgement?
Heifetz, R. A. (1994). Leadership without easy answers (Vol. 465). Harvard University Press.
Heifetz, R. A., Grashow, A., & Linsky, M. (2009). Leadership in a (permanent) crisis. Harvard Business Review, 87(7-8), 62–9, 153. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19630256
Linsky, M. (2009). Linsky on Leadership: Leadership as the distribution of loss. Retrieved from http://cambridgeleadership.blogspot.co.nz/2009/09/leadership-as-distribution-of-loss.
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